I’m fascinated by the subject of homosexuality in Japan.
That being said, I’m still navigating my way around the issues and history of homosexuality in Japan, so I’m not really an authority on the subject in any way. I’ve only spoken to a handful of Japanese people who identify as queer (the all-encompassing term I use in my head for LGBT) and some had very unique opinions on the subject (but that’s kind of a common occurrence if you ask any group of people a question about anything).
I’m in no way an authority on Japan either.
When I moved to Japan in 2010, I thought very differently about the country than the way I do now. Living in a country whose history stretches much further back than my own, whose culture is founded on beliefs far removed from the beliefs that shaped mine, whose language follows rules my native language doesn’t – all of that and a lot of smaller things changed my perception of Japan and the world and just generally made me realize that I know much, much less than I thought I did.
So what I’m offering up here are just some observations I’ve picked up.
Disclaimer corner finished!
So, from what I understand, homosexuality in Japan only became taboo because of Western influence. There are many instances of embraced homosexuality in Japanese history – among warriors, monks, the middle class, etc. It was briefly illegal for eight years in the late 1800s, but it’s been legal ever since. However, it’s no longer socially embraced.
Here’s something I’ve noticed, though: the way we currently think of homosexual relationships and the way they’ve been practiced throughout history are not the same. In Rome, for example, homosexuality between men was all well and groovy for the man as long as he was giving and not receiving, and the one he was giving it to was a slave or a much younger dude he was grooming to be a groovy adult. (Belated Warning: Today’s topic will be frequently visited by anachronistic slang.)
Of course, heterosexual relationships have also changed. Remember that women haven’t always been considered equal to men. And, frustratingly, still aren’t in much of the world. Culture is complex, and I think it’s important to keep that in mind when comparing current events to their place in history. Ancient Romans openly practiced same-sex relationships, but it wasn’t the relationship of two men of equal status carrying that relationship on until death did them part.
And again, for most of history, heterosexual relationships were a social contract. In the simplest terms: man did work, woman made family. Love has been a long-revered dream, but it’s only until recently that we’ve had the social luxury of making love our first priority when choosing a partner.
So I think what I’m saying here is that in many parts of the world, all relationships are changing, not just same-sex ones.
So! Before I dive into homosexuality in Japan, let me cover some cultural basics, starting with:
MARRIAGE IN MODERN JAPAN
I’ll put that there in bold so people can skip my half-sensible rambling and get to the real meat of the rambling.
Recently, I was talking to a Japanese student of mine about relationships in Japan. Here’s essentially what was said:
HIM: The divorce rate in America is quite high.
SELF: That’s true, but statistics are misleading. It’s difficult to say just how high it is.
HIM: Divorce is unimaginable to me. In Japan, it’s not often done.
SELF: Why do you think so?
HIM: Why bother? It’s expensive and troublesome.
SELF: I think the goal of marriage in the West is different. In the States, many people marry for love. When they fall out of love, they get divorced.
HIM: [chuckles] That’s not very practical. Love doesn’t last, so when it ends, poof, so does the marriage.
SELF: So why do you think Japanese people get married?
HIM: It’s convenient.
Overwhelmingly, that’s the mindset I’ve gotten from most Japanese people I’ve talked to about relationships in Japan. Over the last several years, I’ve had conversations like:
COWORKER: [showing photos of her wedding]
SELF: Aww, your husband’s handsome.
COWORKER: Eugh, no he’s not.
SELF: You don’t think so?
COWORKER: [theatrical shudder] Not at all.
COWORKER: I’ve been sick for four weeks. Luckily, the fever’s going away.
SELF: I hope your husband’s taking care of you.
COWORKER: [laughs] That doesn’t happen here.
AMERICAN FRIEND: You’ve never said “I love you” to your husband?
JAPANESE ACQUAINTANCE: [laughing] No way! That’s embarrassing.
AMERICAN FRIEND: But you married the guy! You have a kid. Surely it came up at some point?
SELF: Maybe they just use small gestures to say it instead of words…?
JAPANESE ACQUAINTANCE: Hmm. I don’t think of him that way. I like my kids better. He just pays for things.
Now, of course that’s not to say that no one in Japan marries for love. Many do. On top of that, I’ve heard a lot of Japanese people use the, “All Japanese people ___” statement over the years. “All Japanese people are shy” or “All Japanese people are polite” or “All Japanese people hate Kpop (and that one clearly ain’t so).” So, it should be said that there are a great deal of loving, mutually respectful couples in Japan.
My landlords are one of my favorite married couples. They treat each other with respect and affection and have a magnificently adorable eight-year-old daughter that they’re raising with some of the greatest parenting skills I’ve ever seen. (They’re both pretty amazing people, too, so that probably helped their growth of their relationship.) So – there are absolutely some loving married couples in Japan.
What I’ve observed, though, is that many Japanese people marry for convenience and see their marriage as a social contract, and that’s generally seen as the best way to do things.
On the con side: the marriage-for-convenience thing opens up a lot of problems. Many Japanese men cheat on their wives with hostesses and then claim it’s not cheating because “it’s a service you have to pay for.” Women travel abroad with their friends and balk at the idea of bringing their husband. Once, I had this conversation:
LADY IN HER SIXTIES: I have nightmares about my husband retiring.
LADY IN HER SIXTIES: He’ll be home.
Now, like I said above, I grew up in a very different culture. I grew up with an IV of Disney romance and the concept of true love permanently wedged in my heart. I’m an insufferable romantic and I believe with all my heart that true love is a thing that exists and happens (if rarely). So for me personally, the idea of getting married to someone for convenience is thoroughly undesirable, and that tends to color my opinions on the subject.
But with that said, a lot of people enjoy this way of life. Some people value the benefits in a marriage of convenience and they do quite well. Husband and wife keep their personal lives separate and maintain a mutual focus on their family. I’ve heard and believe the testaments of those in arranged marriages who grew to love each other over long years together. There are many ways to approach marriage well.
I just prefer the mutually loving approach.
PDA IN JAPAN
Public displays of affection between couples really aren’t a thing in Japan. I say “between couples” because I see more PDA between high school boys than any other age group or gender in Japan. They hug each other, kiss each other on the forehead, give each other piggy-back rides – and many of them identify as straight.
When I was in Barcelona, I couldn’t fully adjust to all the PDA I was seeing. Couples snuggling against the walls of buildings, stopping in the middle of a park to kiss, stroking hair out of the other’s face – and sometimes it went into “find a room before you make a public pregnancy” territory, but most of the time it was just a sweet moment between a couple. And it wasn’t just heterosexual couples, which made me giddy on a level I can’t describe in words. I’d have to do an extreme happy face and some wild Kermit arms to get the full effect. (Sometimes English just isn’t enough.)
In Japan, even holding hands is rare. And that’s among the heterosexual folks.
HOMOSEXUALITY IN JAPAN
Aaand so let’s dive in at last.
With all this said (and there’s a lot that I’m not touching on because of time and my friend has gotten home from class and is now patiently waiting for me to finish writing this), it’s tough to get a grasp on the state of homosexuality in Japan.
My most memorable conversation with a queer person in Japan happened with a former coworker of mine. He was around my age and his English was impeccable.
HIM: Being gay here is…difficult.
SELF: How so?
HIM: It’s just… When I was young, no one talked about it. But I knew it wasn’t okay. Everyone kept pushing me at girls and told me to try harder with girls and I just didn’t want to. I thought I was asexual for years. I didn’t even realize I was attracted to men because it was such a laughable thing to so many people.
SELF: What made you realize it, then?
HIM: I don’t remember, actually. I was in college and I guess it just occurred to me gradually. It was worse when I knew, though. Then I knew I didn’t belong in an approved group, and that’s like a social death sentence here.
SELF: Is that when you studied abroad?
HIM: Yeah. I went to Australia for a year. I just couldn’t stay here anymore. I know my country, and I know how long it takes for change to happen here. I remember seeing gay people in Australia and knowing they were gay because they actually talked about it.
SELF: Were you sad to come back after that? Did your classmates in Australia know you were gay?
HIM: They knew. Not all of them, but the friends I made knew. I didn’t want to come back at all. But, you know. Money…job. My English back then was awful, so I started studying as soon as I got home so I could go back.
SELF: Are you out to anyone here?
HIM: You. [laughs] I’m out to a lot of people, actually. Not at work, so…please don’t say anything to anyone. I told my sister and she told the rest of my family. No one’s spit on me or anything, but no one ever brings it up either.
I had that conversation a few years ago, so I don’t remember verbatim what we said, but that was the gist of it. I’ve since lost touch with him, but I heard through the grapevine that he moved abroad, and I’m glad that he made a change that would make him happy.
I think the way he described his family’s reactions is a good summary of the public’s reaction to queer people in Japan. If you don’t bring it up, it’s not an issue. If you keep it to yourself, it’s not a problem. Many queer people end up in heterosexual marriages purely to avoid rocking the boat. And those marriages fall neatly into the category of a marriage of convenience. The man works, the woman takes care of the family – it doesn’t matter that one of them is gay as long as the roles are fulfilled.
Another gay man I spoke to once said, “I won’t see Japan change in my lifetime, I think. My country is very slow to change. It’s why we’ve been in a recession for over thirty years. People want change, but they want things to be easy more.”
I think that’s the biggest enemy of Japan’s forward-marching progress: complacency.
There’s a saying in Japanese much-loathed among Westerners in Japan: しょうがない
The meaning is basically: “It can’t be helped.”
Sometimes it applies, like when a bear eats your sandwich and walks away. You want your sandwich back, but a freaking bear just ate it, so you’re out of luck, my friend.
Other times, it doesn’t. Like when a woman is refused a promotion on the basis that, “Because you’re a woman, you’ll eventually get married and quit anyway.” This is disturbingly common in Japan, and many women shrug and say しょうがない. …Actually, they don’t shrug (that’s a Western gesture).
REPRESENTATIONS OF QUEER PEOPLE IN JAPANESE MEDIA
Heeeeere’s where things get particularly frustrating.
There are openly gay celebrities in Japan. But there are very few of them. That’s a problem.
A bigger problem, in my opinion, are Japan’s comedians.
[Brief segue into Japan’s comedy scene: it’s very different from Western comedy.
I for one don’t find a lot of Japanese comedy funny, so here’s a very biased and unimpressed summary of a Japanese comedy routine:
THE IDIOT: I am saying something strangely!
THE STRAIGHT MAN: [hits him] YOU SAID THAT STRANGELY.
To be fair, a Japanese friend of mine once heard that description, grinned, and said: “That’s true, but isn’t American humor basically being mean to each other and lying?”
And…she’s got a point. A lot of stand-up comedy is pointing out flaws in society and oneself and others, and sarcasm is basically open lying. But it’s also hilarious, so POINT DEBUNKED.
One day, I’ll do a post about differences in cultural comedy but I’m getting off point in a huge way, so I’ll tackle that later.]
Japan’s entertainment industry is split up into categories. You have your idols, who mostly sing but also do some acting and modeling; you have your talents, who are more actors and the like; and there’s your comedians.
Keep in mind: Japan is a vastly homogenous country. 98% of the population is Japanese, and fitting in is THE priority of a lot of people. For example, some schools send kids home if their hair is curly because No Japanese Person Has Naturally Curly Hair (except some do and then have to flat-iron their hair every morning to abide by their school’s rules).
Coming from the States, this was a biiiig culture shock for me. I’m used to Be Unique! Be Original! Be You! And to be fair, as a foreigner living in Japan, the rules don’t often apply to me because anything I do that isn’t traditionally accepted in Japanese culture is handwaved because I’m not Japanese.
So, comedians. I heard a joke once from an American comedian where he said, “Actors are just good-looking comedians,” meaning stand-up is what you do if you’re not good looking enough to be in Hollywood. Of course there are plenty of traditionally attractive comedians and traditionally unattractive actors, but for the most part, the point holds.
In Japan, the only option for a slightly overweight woman in the entertainment industry is to be a comedian. Same goes for men, as a matter of fact. It may be one of the only equalizers among the sexes, now that I think about it. Again, there are attractive comedians, but for some reason the industry goes out of its way to portray comedians as cartoonishly as they possibly can.
And now we arrive at the problematic part.
Many comedians play up gay stereotypes for laughs. Many straight comedians.
I’ve actually watched a comedian offer his ass to another man, then feel the guy’s hands on his hips and shriek, “I’m not gay!” and run to the opposite side of the sound stage.
I’ve seen comedians flailing their hands around as flamboyantly as they possibly can without dislodging the hand, lisping dramatically, hitting on every man in sight, then sitting down to be interviewed and dropping the act immediately when someone asks if they’re gay and laughing, “Of course not.”
Japanese media displays queer people as jokes.
There are some exceptions. There is an openly gay politician. An actress-turned-LGBT-activist unofficially married her girlfriend in Tokyo Disneyland last year. Haruna Ai is a transgender entertainer who appears on a vast number of shows. There’s Matsuko Deluxe, one of my favorite entertainers, a transvestite with the unique ability to make any show she appears on twelve times more interesting.
But for every positive representation of a queer person, there are twelve more people like Hard Gay, a ridiculous man I like to pretend doesn’t exist for the continuing welfare of my sanity.
I’ve told five or six people about Neil Patrick Harris in the context of his acting and his general excellence as a human, and sometimes in the context of his being an openly gay actor in the States.
One friend heard all about his rise from child prodigy doctor to beloved national icon, and then I showed her a photo of him and her eyes widened. “He’s so handsome!” From there, I showed her photos of NPH’s husband David Burtka and their twins, and she shook her head in amazement. “I didn’t know gay men could look like that.”
I wondered what she thought they looked like and she said, “My image is like the comedians on TV. Fat, ugly, loud. That kind of thing.”
I think it’s that image that keeps so many queer Japanese people firmly under the radar. It’s the same stigma that plagued the States in the Eighties and Nineties. I remember when the only portrayal of homosexuality on TV was Will & Grace. I remember hearing people talk about Jack as if his character was the only way a gay person could behave.
So, I think Japan’s just stuck in that chapter. The problem with that, though, is complacency.
I think that right now, things are “enough.” No one’s burning queer people at the stake, and as long as you keep your head down, no one bothers you about your sexuality. From what I understand, most Japanese people don’t care one way or the other about homosexuality and just don’t want to hear about what happens when pants go down. And while queer kids are absolutely bullied, bullying is such a widespread issue in Japan already that it isn’t pointed out as a more severe problem for queer kids than others.
But change is happening. Japan is a country with a rich history, and a beautiful culture. The strides Japan took following WWII in lifting their country is nothing short of remarkable. But I think the aftermath of WWII and their more recent downward curve in economics created hesitance in other areas, and so I think while positive change is inevitable, it may be slower to happen than many of us would like.
I plan on going to the Gay Pride Parade in Tokyo later this month. Maybe there I’ll get a more rounded view of the situation as it stands.
Until then, I present this short and sweet documentary featuring the late gay porn actor Koh Masaki and his boyfriend TenTen.